By Lindsay Alfermann

The Lebanon R-3 School District allowed students to embrace the great outdoors with the recontinuation of their annual Explorer Camp this summer. Students and their instructors, MSTA members Laura Latall and Ryne Emerick, collaborated with Missouri State Parks employees in an action-packed, educational experience held June 3-16 at Bennett Spring State Park.

The class was available to students in grades 6-12 as part of the district’s Summer Experience program. High schoolers earned one half of a general elective credit upon completion of the course. The class was inspired by Latall’s own love for volunteering and spending time outdoors.

“I run a program called LHSU that requires students to volunteer throughout high school and wanted to get them out into nature and do some good for the park,” Latall said. “So, I contacted the park and started bringing students out to volunteer a couple years ago. I have since worked with Patty Chambers, the director of the nature center, to partner with Bennett Spring State Park and develop that relationship into a summer course.”

Although the camp first started in 2019, students felt especially glad to be outside this year.

“It’s incomprehensible how good it feels to go back and be with people instead of just stuck in your house playing video games all day,” seventh-grader Ikerd Mizer said.

After an unprecedented year of dependency on technology, unplugging was a big thought on Latall’s mind, too.

“I teach Fahrenheit 451 in my class during the school year, so we talk a lot about the impact of technology on our lives and it’s nice to carry that into the summer and allow the kids to unplug,” she said. “We fit in as many outdoor activities as we can. We give them fishing time every day and intersperse a lot of other presentations, guest speakers and other activities just to keep them outside.”

Students enjoyed hiking, journaling, kayaking, geocaching, Dutch oven cooking, invertebrate identification, yoga, outdoor safety lessons and various other educational topics.

“One of the goals of this program was to have the kids involved with things that they see around them that they may not understand, like why a bird puts a nest up in a tree or why eggs are certain colors,” Emerick said. “We did an experiment where they modeled bird eggs and then hid them like a bird would have their nest out in nature. Then we’d come back a few days later and see if anything had disturbed the nest. It was a great way to see some of the unseen sights around the park that they might not normally be aware of.”

Sixth-grader Emily Doughty hid one of her clay eggs near a fallen branch on a trail and another in a nest up in a high spot, where a bird would be likely to build a nest.

“I didn’t think the birds would actually think it was their egg,” she said. “But it did look pretty realistic.”

Other activities, like trail maintenance tasks, required students to get their hands dirty and exercise.

“One of the things I told the kids is that if you come out here and help maintain the trails, it’s something that will make a lasting impact,” Emerick said. “Here in the State Park, we have several miles of trail and erosion is a constant issue.”

The group worked to reform a set of stairs on the Whistle Trail, making the path more accessible for hikers.

“We split up into three teams,” Emerick said. “One group carried railroad ties to make steps out of, another group carried rock up the trail in buckets to dump it, and the other group spread it out and drove the ties into the ground and make it look neat.”

These experiences helped students form a sense of responsibility for the environment, as well as initiative to try something new. Daily fishing time allowed beginners to develop their skill sets.

“Every day I’d ask the kids if any of them had not caught a trout yet,” Emerick said. “Quite a few had never even caught a fish before. So, it was my goal by the end of camp to have everyone catch a fish.”

Eighth-grader Jordan O’Quinn said that he enjoyed having several hours of fishing time each day.

“I’ve fished a lot before, just not for trout,” O’Quinn said. “One I caught at camp was probably fifteen or sixteen inches long.”

Whether they walked away with the satisfaction of catching a fish or simply the joy of forming new friendships and being outdoors, every student gained a new perspective on life in the outdoors.

“The stories that you will tell about your childhood very rarely include a video game you played or a video you watched online, it’s always an experience that you have,” Emerick said. “Allowing this opportunity for the kids to have this summer camp, I think it will be a story they tell for a long time.”

Mizer agreed, “This will probably be some of the best times we’ll have in our lives. This is going to be what we think about when we’re old. This is what we’re going to think about… coming down to Bennett Spring State Park.”